INDIANAPOLIS — One of the things we all seem to just take for granted as media and fans as the Super Bowl rolls around is that the players in the game are just meant to be there because of how their teams performed in that given season. But visiting with New England's Pro Bowl OG Logan Mankins yesterday, I was struck by what might have been if his long and sometimes acrimonious contract battle with the club had turned out differently.
"Sure, there were times I thought I might end up somewhere else, and there were times I was a little upset and uncertain how it would all turn out," he told me. "But I couldn't be happier with the way it worked out, and this is absolutely where I want to be."
When I followed up, pushing just a bit to get to just how ugly it may have gotten, he said, "Hey, it's over now, and I'm glad it worked out the way it did, but yeah, there were some moments when I wasn't sure what to think or how it would all end up."
Mankins has at times worn the mantle of best offensive guard in football, and if he isn't still, he's at least in the conversation with Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans of the Saints and Davin Joseph in Tampa. He is also, I believe, one of the more important players in Super Bowl XLVI, along with two fellow Patriots offensive linemen, All-AFC OG Brian Waters and OLT Matt Light.
One of the ironies of this game is that fans tend to concede the matchup to the Giants' stellar D-line over the Pats' blockers, even though New England's is one of the better groups in the league. This is how close it came to not happening at all.
Mankins' contract expired after the 2009 season, and he believed he would be rewarded for his All-Pro play in the uncapped 2010 season by the only club he's ever played for. Instead, he became a restricted free agent and was tendered at $3.26 million.
Mankins became so upset he made some less-than-flattering comments about the Pats and owner Robert Kraft. The two sides eventually came to terms on a deal, but Kraft wanted an apology from Mankins along with his signature. Both sides agree that Mankins did offer what was described as a sincere and heartfelt apology, but Kraft wanted a public statement, as well. Mankins was so upset he walked away from the deal and held out the first half of the season, returning only in time to earn another vested year of service and, he thought, a better shot at free agency in 2011.
At first Mankins was franchised in 2011 before a six-year, $51 million deal was finally struck.
Reflecting back on it now, Mankins says, "Listen, I'm not going to apologize for anything, but I wish it hadn't happened and I'm sure we all thought we were right. It happened, but I'm really happy where we're at right now."
With all that in the background, it's interesting to hear Mankins as an evangelist for what has come to be known as the "Patriot Way."
"The main way is to lead by example. Let them (young players) see how you handle yourself, how you go to work, what time you get there in the morning, the way you lift and train, and the way you study. I think that's the best way to rub off on people. You just can't tell them and then you do it a different way. You have to set that example."
Adding to the irony of where Mankins finds himself today is how close Waters and Light were to not being here, as well. Light's contract expired at the end of last season, with some of his fans picking up rumblings that he was considering retirement and others hearing the Pats might choose not to resign him, with youngsters Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder both costing high draft picks over the last two seasons and projected to be the team's tackles of the future. Waters was cut loose by the Chiefs in a salary-cap move and was unsigned until after the final cutdowns in training camp, when the Pats gobbled him up. Light was re-signed, as well, and now the three may very well be the most important Pats in red, white and blue come Sunday.
Waters talked about how tight the group has become over the course of the season, saying, "I've had an opportunity to know a couple of these guys before I got here. I had a lot of respect for Matt and Logan and the way they played the game before I got here, and then just working with Nate and Sebastian - those are two of the most talented football players, especially young players, that I've ever been around. It's a good group; it's definitely a good group."
Good enough to keep Tom Brady upright and claim the Pats' fourth Super Bowl title in the last 11 years? That remains to be seen, but what Mankins already knows for sure is how good it feels for him to be back in the Super Bowl as a Patriot. "Definitely, it's great to be back. It's our goal every year to get here. When it doesn't happen, you're pretty disappointed. But when you do get here ..."